Caught by the River

The Idle Traveller

27th June 2012

Dan Kieran’s new book reviewed by Kev Parr

For nine years, Dennis Bergkamp lit up the Premier League. His touch, vision and particularly his balance were qualities that sealed his place alongside the likes of Henry, Le Tissier and Cantona at the pinnacle of the British game. His consistency provided the catalyst for Arsenal to shrug off their ‘Boring, Boring’ tag and become one of the most exciting teams in Europe.

Sadly, though, many European fans were denied of his skill during this period. Arsenal were regular qualifiers to the Champions League, but many away games were played without their Dutch superstar. After a failed engine on a flight during the 1994 World Cup, ‘The Non-Flying Dutchman’ (as Bergkamp became known) developed aerophobia and vowed never to fly again.

Dan Kieran is not quite as good at football as Dennis Bergkamp, but I’d wager he has better skill with a pen and the two do share a phobia of flying. But while Bergkamp’s affliction saved him from the humiliating 3-0 defeat away at Shaktar Donetsk in November 2000, Dan has twisted his own fears to his advantage and explored travel with enlightened perspective. In recent years Dan has become one of the leading advocates of ‘slow travel’, the art of journeying without hurry and instead engaging ourselves within travel itself.

Within the pages of The Idle Traveller, Dan shares his philosophies. After a typically erudite introduction from the Grandmaster of Idleness Tom Hodgkinson, Dan begins his exploration with a mantra for his whole ethos – travel, don’t just arrive. Within pages we begin to understand why. The Idle Traveller is not some anti-establishment tirade against modern travel, but a guide into the mind and attitude of the traveller himself. It is not the fear of flying that keeps Dan off the runways, but the ignominy of the process itself. No-one smiles in airports, instead we huff and puff as we are herded from box to box, not able to relax until we have left the airport at the other end. It is an ordeal.

If we embrace travel and learn to enjoy it, then suddenly the journey is the experience and not simply a route to a final destination. Dan finds wonderful rhythm as he carries us on his journey. The words form neat, soothing prose that trips along like the hypnotic clickity-click of a train skipping along the tracks. In one chapter he explores his local South Downs on foot and still I felt the same steady and reassuring pace and mood. Elsewhere we are urged to guide ourselves on our travels in the style of the great Victorian travel writers. Dan certainly does so himself, ignoring the structure of the off-the shelf ‘how to get there’ guides and instead exploring the true soul of the places he visits. He digs deeper, avoiding the crowds following the ‘must see’ trail and instead steering himself through the backstreets, driven by literature written by those inspired by the true essence of a location.

Dan travels with his young family by train across Europe and into the former Eastern Bloc. As the miles slip by he reads Zweig and Schorske who guide him around Vienna, before John Keane’s biography of Vaclav Havel opens his eyes to horrors beyond the cheap beer of Prague. There is a wonderful image amid this journey where shocked by the realities of the holocaust and the fragility of the Czech legacy, Dan, Rachel and their 3 year old son Wilf find themselves in an empty train which magically transforms for the benefit of Wilf into a connection of ‘themed’ carriages. Wilf’s favourite is the ‘upside-down’ carriage, where small children had to remain inverted for the entire time they were in it. The innocence and sense of a three year old mind makes for refreshing and poignant diversion from the realities and scars of Nazi occupation.

It is the author’s enthusiasm that also keeps the pages turning. He utterly immerses himself into his subject, delving deep as he discusses themes as diverse as neuroscience and Grecian rhetoric. And because Dan is so affected, we cannot help but feel it too. His philosophy is not radical, but instead a reminder of what we already possess but too often choose to suppress. His eyes have been opened to a world unshackled by the constraints of time and convention, and it is a place we should all visit.

The Idle Traveller will open many minds to a whole new adventure in Travel, but airport bookstalls would be wise not to stock it – they may just discover fewer people coming through their doors.

The Idle Traveller is available from the Caught by the River shop for £10. Dan Kieran will be in conversation about the Idle Traveller with Caught by the River’s Robin Turner at Dinefwr Festival this Saturday (June 30th) and in conversation with Chris Yates at Port Eliot next month.

Information on The Twitch, Kevin Parr’s as yet unpublished novel can be found here.